The beer may run a little weaker in Oklahoma, but yesterday's big eating contest at WinStar World Casino proved their hot dogs are some of the toughest around.
In his bid to qualify for this year's Nathan's Famous Hot Dog Championship at Coney Island, Sean "Flash" Gordon put away 30 dogs and buns last month, and still came in second. Yesterday at WinStar, Gordon needed just 23.5 dogs in 10 minutes for the win. "The entire tempo was slow," Gordon said after the race. "It was hard to settle into a good rhythm."
A few eaters said the dogs' thick natural casing made them tougher to put away in a hurry; established eaters' totals were down across the board. Still, before a sparse crowd in an enormous casino ballroom, Gordon and Crazy Legs Conti ran neck-and-neck through the race, with judge Mike Antolini's official count putting Conti just a half-dog behind.
Now that Gordon's got his reservation for a return to the big table on the Fourth of July, he's not even worried about competing with past champions like Joey Chestnut and Takeru Kobayashi -- it's enough of a reward, he says, just to be up there. "At this point, it's not even about gearing up. It's about relaxing."
Runners-up like Conti, Adrian Morgan (who finished with 20.5) and Frisco's Nate Biller, will have to take one of the four remaining qualifying contests if they want a chance to claim this year's Mustard Yellow Belt. (Conti's expected to enter the qualifier in San Diego later this month.)
The handful of local hopefuls were no match for the tough-skinned Sooner dogs, but most held their own at the table -- especially the youngest, a 20-year-old former high school wing contest champ, and a 65-year-old veteran of the merchant marine who's thrown himself into the sport since his first run at a contest earlier this year.
Gary Klucken, a semi-retired hardware store worker from Waco, said he always knew he had a rare appetite. Serving in the merchant marine, Klucken said he worked nights in his ship's boiler room, where the smell of bacon and eggs pumped through direct vents from the galley every morning. Once his shift was up, Klucken said, he'd destroy what was left of the breakfast upstairs.
Klucken took fourth place -- and a $450 prize -- in last month's jalapeño contest in San Antonio, eating 73 peppers in his first organized race. Then he placed second in a June 6 contest in New Orleans, downing 252 oysters to beat every one of the experienced eaters around him, save one: Sonya "the Black Widow" Thomas. She ate nearly 450.
Despite Klucken's decades of recreational eating, his 13 hot dogs yesterday weren't enough to compete -- and were just a few ahead of another new face in the eating world: 20-year-old Ryan Reed from Sachse. A wing-eating champ in his high school days (he ate 33 in two minutes), Reed was the youngest eater at the table yesterday, and more than held his own, finishing 10.5 dogs and buns.
While Gordon looks forward to his ticket to New York next month, and the eaters close behind him sweat out yet another qualifier in another city in the next few weeks, after the race Reed said he'd be happy to take a little break from the sport. He might be up for entering another contest someday but, he said, "not this year."